We recently enjoyed a trip to Washington DC, where we visited national sites, celebrated my grandfather’s 100th birthday and visited with relatives.
Although we were so happy to make the trip, we did need to keep costs down in order to make it happen. Since summer vacationing is right around the corner (no really, winter will end someday), I’m sharing some of our tricks to keeping vacation costs in check, particularly if you have a larger family. In Part I we will cover travel, lodging and activites and in Part II, we will cover food.
Simple math will tell you it is cheaper to drive than to fly and that benefit only increases with the number of people in your family. Driving to our destination cost us about $450 in gas plus about $120 in tolls, where as flying all six of us there would have been $1,800. Having done the road trip thing a time or two, I have lots of tips on how to survive (and even enjoy) a long road trip. Do consider extra costs (like tolls) and meals along the way, if you plan to eat out or buy snacks.
Affordable lodging with more than 4 people is really tricky, isn’t it? If you stay in a hotel, you really need two rooms or you need to get a suite, which is usually significantly more expensive than a hotel room. We have found that choosing a place where we can store and prepare our food on site is the best option. We come out ahead in total if we pay a bit more for space that fits us all and allows us to prepare food, than if we get two hotel rooms and eat out the entire time.
In Washington D.C., we rented an apartment (via AirBNB.com) in the District. It was small, with two bedrooms and one bathroom, but we had a full kitchen and the living room sofa allowed us to comfortably sleep all six of us. It was a fun experience to stay in the city and I think finding places like that gives our family a more authentic experience of the city we are visiting. Other options for finding local rentals include VRBO and Home Away.
Be sure to read the description carefully and note if there are additional costs (like parking). Also, read the reviews. You can find a lot of great information in the reviews. On our last trip, we learned that the contact for our rental was not very responsive, but the property manager (who was onsite) was very responsive and that we could find her number in our first confirmation email. Having this information saved us a lot of headaches and we learned it by reading comments made on the rental site for that property. The best deal in the world won’t seem so great if it causes you a bunch of hassle or headache, so consider what others say about their stay.
Also, be sure to ask for ALL the fees and taxes to be quoted by the rental management BEFORE you book it, so you will know exactly what you are going to have to pay. Sometimes extras like city taxes (over 14% for our trip’s rental) are not added in, and then you get a bill later that you have to pay before you can use the property. Just be sure to go in with your eyes wide open and save any correspondence in case you need it later.
Even though you have already spent money to get to your destination and have a place to stay, once you are there you want to DO some things. Sometimes it is easy – say if you choose to go to a beach. Other times, it is more tricky. In Washington DC, we had it good because nearly everything we did cost nothing (national sites and museums do not charge admission). We visited 3 museums, 8 memorials or monuments, and watched the changing of the guard at the national cemetery, all for free.
Parking in Washington D.C. was difficult, so we used the Metro to get to our destinations quickly and for little cash. As a bonus, my suburban-raised kids loved taking the train. So, consider public transportation as you make your plans, even if you drive to your destination.
Other activities that we usually can find for free include walking around the rental neighborhood and finding a park or play area for my younger kids to burn off some energy. Although it is not free, it is usually pretty affordable to find a neighborhood ice cream shop (or coffee or wine, or whatever you like) for another fun outing and a taste of the city you are visiting. Stuff like that is relaxing and makes for nice down time between bigger activities. You can ask local people you meet for areas nearby, or thanks to modern technology, you can look it up on your phone’s map feature.
The photo above is of my kids at a large county park that is behind the house my grandparents lived in Arlington, VA. Hanging out in the park is one of our best memories and it was completely free. Even though I knew about the park growing up, every area has hidden gems like that just waiting for you to discover.
If you are wanting souvenirs or other items from your visit, pay attention to your options. I have a friend who has bought Disney clothing at home much less expensively than at the Disney parks. She just packed it and surprised her kids with it during their vacation. In Washington, the weather turned unexpectedly cold. Instead of buying sweatshirts on the street or at the museums, we found a CVS a few blocks off the main path and saved about $10 each. Of course, we could have saved even more if we just brought some along that day, but it was fun to get Washington DC sweatshirts and at least we did our best with our situation at the time.
With all of these tips, it works best if you pick what appeals to you and skip what does not – it is vacation, after all – best to keep the stress to a minimum.
Please check out Part II, where you can learn a bunch of ways to save on food while on vacation.